It’s taken about three years, but the Federal Transit Administration on Thursday finally approved an official recovery plan for Honolulu’s rail, essentially a guidepost to getting the project past its multibillion-dollar budget woes and all the way to Ala Moana Center.

The move is a key first step if rail is ever to see its more than $700 million in remaining federal funding. It also signals continued support for rail by federal transit leaders despite the project’s being ensnared this year in a federal criminal investigation.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz broke the news with an emailed statement Thursday, as Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board members were briefed publicly on the project’s latest financial report at Alii Place.

UH West Oahu HART Rail station view from platform, looking north.
Rail’s elevated guideway bends along West Oahu. Federal transit officials approved the project’s recovery plan Thursday, signaling continued support. The remaining federal funds still won’t immediately be released, however. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“This is not the end of the process, but this is an important milestone that recognizes the work that the state and the city have done in getting this project to be more accountable and keep costs under control,” Schatz wrote.

HART Executive Director Andrew Robbins had not heard of the FTA’s approval when Schatz released his statement. About 10 minutes later, HART released its own statement in which Robbins called it a “significant milestone for the project.”

HART has submitted at least five versions of the recovery plan since the fall of 2016, after rail costs skyrocketed to more than $8 billion. In June, Robbins traveled to the FTA’s offices in San Francisco to hand-deliver the latest, $9.19 billion version.

The FTA, however, remains worried about the actual costs associated with switching to a so-called “public-private partnership” in order to finish the project — an unprecedented move in U.S. transit system construction.

The federal agency still plans to withhold rail’s remaining $744 million until the project’s final, major construction contract is signed and rail’s budget should be much clearer. HART expects that public-private partnership deal to be signed in February.

The latest recovery plan version also shifts the city’s $214 million share of the construction costs — its “skin in the game” — to earlier years. HART and the city had hoped to pay most of that starting in earnest in 2026.

“The recovery plan was a necessary step to be able to satisfy the FTA that the project is back on track, (that) we have the project under control,” Robbins said during a media briefing later in the morning. “That’s a huge achievement from even two years ago, where the project was at that time.”

Read the FTA’s approval of the rail recovery plan here:

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